In the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two years ago, President Barack Obama tried to assuage strained race relations between black Americans and police with a promise: Over the course of three years, local law enforcement across the country would receive $263 million for police body cameras.
“This time will be different because the president of the United States is deeply vested in making it different,” Obama told reporters when he announced the funding package in 2014.
The plan seemed simple enough. For police, the cameras would aid in corroborating events and show whether force was used correctly in questionable conflicts — in fact, a 2016 University of Cambridge study found that the use of body cameras meant significant decreases in complaints against British law enforcement. Researchers believe that the presence of the cameras impacted both the behavior of officers and the suspects under investigation, perhaps encouraging both parties to be on their best behavior.
For minority populations who say they are disproportionately harassed, arrested and killed following police encounters, the cameras would serve as evidence of racial bias. One small study conducted in Rialto, Calif. in 2012 found that officers who wore body cameras used force less often. Over a one-year period, use of force fell 59 percent among officers that wore body cameras, and complaints against officers fell 87 percent compared to the previous year.
Yet not all law enforcement agencies have reacted well to body cameras. As the New York Times and the Washington Post reported recently, new state laws now stand to greatly limit who can access body camera footage, in measures designed to make officers feel less vulnerable.
When signing the bill into law in July, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory told the Associated Press that making body camera footage public "distorts the entire picture, which is extremely unfair to our law enforcement officials." The law, which went into effect Oct. 1, prevents body camera footage from being released as a matter of public record. Illinois, Utah, South Carolina and some other states have similar laws restricting public access to body camera footage.
Proponents of these laws say body camera footage is too often used to quickly vilify police, which erodes officer morale. Opponents say the laws make law enforcement transparency impossible.
Yet an underlying issue to use of body cameras is the lax enforcement for body camera use in the first place. In Scott’s case in North Carolina, the Washington Post reported that police body cameras weren’t on until after Scott had been shot — a growing problem among officer shootings, like the August shooting of Paul O’Neal in Chicago. For all the legislation and funding to spell out how body cameras and their footage are used, there's little significant legal ramifications if an officer simply doesn't turn their camera on, as the Atlantic recently reported.
Whether or not the use of police body cameras will emerge as a way of easing race tensions in America remains to be seen, but keeping them from the public puts law enforcement at the same disadvantage body cameras were meant to prevent: A public skeptical of their pledge to protect and to serve.